Tag Archives: hymns

Hymn by Hosea Ballou

Hosea Ballou is one of the theological giants of my religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism. Back in 1805, Ballou wrote A Treatise on Atonement, still the major exposition of North American Universalism (you can read it online here). Unfortunately, Ballou was not what you’d call a great writer. When trying to describe his writing style, the adjective “clunky” comes immediately to mind.

Because he was a mediocre writer, hardly anyone reads his Treatise any more, and hardly anyone bothers to sing any of the hundreds of hymns he wrote. This is unfortunate, because buried in Ballou’s clunky prose is a vision of a universe run by Love, where someday the power of Love is going to make everything turn out well.

I recently discovered that one of Ballou’s hymns is still in print — not in the current Unitarian Universalist hymnal, but in The Sacred Harp, a songbook widely used by shape-note singers. It’s number 411 in The Sacred Harp, and it goes like this:

1. Come, let us raise our voices high,
And from a sacred song,
To him who rules the earth and sky,
And does our days prolong.
Who through the night gave us to rest,
This morning cheered our eyes;
And with the thousands of the blest,
In health made us to rise.

2. Early to God we’ll send our prayer,
Make hast to pray and praise,
That he may make our good his care,
And guide us all our days.
And when the night of death comes on,
And we shall end our days,
May his rich grace the theme prolong,
Of his eternal praise.

Hosea Ballou, 1808 (C.M.D.)

No, I’m not proposing that we include this hymn in the next edition of the Unitarian Universalist hymnal. In The Sacred Harp book, Ballou’s hymn is set to a fuguing tune, fairly complex music that is far beyond the singing ability of the average American congregation (though it might be fun for a church choir), and the hymn itself is not quite good enough for me to want to go to the trouble of finding another, easier, tune for it. But it’s nice to know that people still do sing this old Universalist hymn, even though most of those who sing it probably have no idea who Hosea Ballou was, or what Universalism might be.

Great new song

Holly Near wrote the song “I Am Willing” in 2003. She sang it May 18, 2006, at a peace rally outside the White House, with Pat Humphries and Sandy Opatow singing back-up. I learned this song from Laurie Loosigian, and it has become my new religio-political anthem. It’s easy to sing, with a powerful chorus:

I am open and I am willing,
for to be hopeless would seem so strange —
it dishonors those who go before us,
so lift me up to the light of change.

I’m going to introduce this to my church this fall, and after you listen to the song, your church might want to do the same. (You can find a score of a gospel-y arrangement, with recordings of all four parts, here — scroll way down. It’s not to my taste, but you might like it.)

Possible worship song

I learned this song from Mindy yesterday:

We Have All That We Need.
Full Blessed Children Of Space
Light Shines Full On Our Faces
Giving Love, Illumination. Peace.

You can find the tune here: http://www.seeliecourt.net/panpipe/oldchan.html

Repertoire for a Folk Choir

We have a Folk Choir here at First Unitarian in New Bedford, and I’ve been searching out repertoire for this group. My general criteria: songs that are easily singable, songs that are good for untrained voices, songs that sound good when accompanied by guitar or other folk instrument, well-known songs by folkish singer-songwriters, and/or songs with robust folk harmonies.

So I scanned the current Unitarian Universalist (UU) hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, and the UU hymnal supplement Singing the Journey, for folkish songs. I also went through Rise Up Singing, the popular group singing songbook, and found quite a few songs there that were worth considering for liberal religious worship services. Finally, I found shape note songs in Singing the Living Tradition that are also contained in The Sacred Harp, the widespread shape note hymnal, and/or contained in the online Southern Harmony, another easily-available shape note hymnal.

All told, I came up with more than a hundred folkish hymns, which are listed on three pages (links below). I value your corrections and additions — simply add a comment to one of the specific pages below. If you have suggestions of other folkish songs that would do well in a UU worship service, add them to the comments on this page.

Folkish hymns and songs in Singing the Living Tradition and Singing the Journey. 70+ songs that are also included in Rise Up Singing (which has guitar chords for most songs). Another dozen songs in SLT and STJ but not in RUS which are fairly folkish-sounding.

Rise Up Singing as a UU hymnal. 30+ songs from this songbook that are suitable for use in UU worship services. List includes songs by Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and classic songs like “Never Turning Back” and “All God’s Critters.” (Does not include the 70+ songs listed on the above page).

Shape note hymns in Singing the Living Tradition. With references to The Sacred Harp (1991 edition), and references and links to The Southern Harmony (online 1854 edition, with MIDI files and some live recordings of these tunes). In many cases, the tunes in Singing the Living Tradition have been slightly altered (often not for the better); and generally speaking, the arrangements in SLT pale in comparison to the robust harmonies of the shape note hymnals.

Other folkish songs suitable for use in worship: Songs not contained in any of the above sources, some including sheet music and/or lyrics.

Universalist composer

I’ve been looking through some shape-note hymnals, and came across this interesting tidbit in The Norumbega Harmony, in the introductory essay by Stephen Marini*:

“The greatest musical influence in Maine… was Supply Belcher…. Belcher’s primary successor was Abraham Maxim, a native of Plymouth County, Massachusetts, who settled during the 17090s in Turner [Maine], where he taught singing schools and converted to Universalism. Maxim’s Oriental Harmony (1802) and Northern Harmony (1805) reflect the [William] Billings-Belcher influence that thoroughly dominated Maine’s singing school tradition.”

Although he is little more than a footnote today, Maxim (b. 1773 – d. 1829 Palmyra, Somerset County, Maine) must be the earliest North American Universalist composer whose works survive today. The Norumbega Harmony contains two compositions by Maxim, settings of hymns by Isaac Watts. Both compositions are fuguing tunes (for the record, Buckfield, p. 166 is an L.M. tune; Machais, p. 169, is a P.M. tune), and a quick look reveals that both seem musically interesting. Universalist hymnodists and choirs, take note!

* Stephen Marini is the historian who wrote the ground-breaking Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England, a third of which book covered the indigenous Universalism of central New England; thus Marini knows his early New England Universalism. Marini’s other major scholarly publication is Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture.

Shape note singing & today’s hymnody

At the New England Folk Festival, one of the workshops I attended was an introduction to shape note singing. Shape note singing is a tradition of hymn singing that stretches back to the singing schools established by North American ministers in the second half of the 18th C. as a way to improve congregational singing. The shape note tradition began in New England with composers like William Billings (1746-1800) of Boston, moved south where it produced books like The Southern Harmony in 1854, and held on into the 20th C. in Appalachia and a few other out-of-the-way regions. Finally, starting about 1975 shape note singing enjoyed a nation-wide renaissance with singing groups from New England to California (link to list of regional singings). Thus shape note singing is an indigenous North American musical tradition with an unbroken two-and-a-quarter-century history.

At the workshop I attended, I learned the basics of one shape-note tradition. The music is sung in four parts (sometimes three parts) and is printed in a distinctive style of musical notation where the note-heads have different shapes depending on the pitch. The singing style is full-throated and open, even a little nasal. The singers are always arranged in a square divided into four sections: tenors or leads (they carry the melody) in one section; sopranos or trebles to their right; altos to the right of sopranos; and basses to the right of the altos and the left of the leads. The center of this square is left open and whoever is leading a given hymn stands in the center facing the tenors, and beats time (the front row of tenors also beat time for those who can’t see the song leader).

As a working minister, what really struck me is the gap between singing shape-note hymns for an hour sitting in a square on the one hand, and the realities of incorporating hymn-singing into real-life liturgy on the other hand. Shape-note singing started as a singing school, a way to teach ordinary people how to sight-read four-part harmony; the singing master would come to your town for six weeks or some months, and lots of people would learn how to sing shape-note hymns, and then the singing master would go away and (in theory, at least) a big percentage of your congregation would have some basic music skills. Of course, when you use shape-note hymns in a worship service, I can’t see that you would have everyone sit in a square, and divide up your congregation by tenors, sopranos, etc. But the shape-note hymnal embodies the teaching method of the singing master.

What particularly interested me is that shape-note singing connects a specific hymnal with the pedagogical method (teaching people how to sight-read music, etc.). Hymnals such as The Scared Harp are both teaching tools, and liturgical resources. Compare that to the hymnal that I use everyday, Singing the Living Tradition, which seems to be written by musicians for other musicians; there is no concession made to the non-musician, and there are no singing schools to help people how to use that hymnal. The new Unitarian Universalist hymnal supplement, Singing the Journey, makes even less of a concession to non-musicians — most of the hymns require an accomplished or professional accompanist, some of the hymns stretch out over six pages (requiring three page turns) — while it contains some beautiful music, it’s really a hymnal for trained soloists and choir directors, not a hymnal for the average member of a congregation. Having peeked into the hymnals of other denominations, I think this is a widespread problem.

Contrast a hymnal like Singing the Journey with the group singing songbook Rise Up Singing. Rise Up includes only lyrics and simple chord progressions, no musical notation — you either have to know a song, or you have to have a song leader who can lead the song. Rise Up has a pedagogical method implicit in it:– you learn to sing by singing songs you’re already familiar with, and then when you gain confidence you’re willing to learn new songs that are led campfire-style (mostly unison singing, with simple guitar strumming) by a song leader. I’ve used both Rise Up and Singing the Living Tradition extensively, and in my experience, Rise Up is much better at empowering average singers to simply sing.

I’m not suggesting that we replace our hymnal with Rise Up Singing (although I have used Rise Up successfully in worship services). But we could learn this from shape note singing:– every hymnal could include a coherent pedagogical method that will improve the skills of the average singer.

More on “Spirit of Life”

Today I dug out my copy of Songs for Congregational Singing by Carolyn McDade (1991), with harmonizations by McDade and Marian Shatto. After writing a post earlier this week on the popular hymn “Spirit of Life” which appears in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal with a harmonization by Grace Lewis-McLaren, I decided to look at another harmonization.

McDade’s and Shatto’s harmonization of “Spirit of Life” for piano uses a chord progression that can be interpreted as follows (one chord per measure):
   C Dm G7 C Am Dm G7 Cadd9
   C Dm G7 C Am Dm G7 Csus4
   Cadd9 Dm G13 Cadd9 Am Dm G7 Cadd9 C5
(N.B.: the last note is held for an extra measure.)

The harmonies are somewhat more complex than this — for example, you could read a CM7 for the fourth, ninth, and twelfth measures; and a Dm9 for the twenty-second measure.

And the rhythm is somewhat more complex than the version in the hymnal — the left hand on the piano part plays arpeggio-like figures that vary from straight eighths to syncopated figures like this: | 1 & 2 &   &   & |.

Also of interest in this little book is the song “Spirit of Justice,” with words that include:

Your people call, in faith we call — Be with us now
that we may make of this pained and captive land
a city just, a people free, strong with hope
and cast our lot with those who face the storm
and don’t turn back but dare go on….

Personally, I’d have more interest in singing these words than the words to “Spirit of Life.”

Jazzing it up

During the workshop I was co-leading on Friday and Saturday, someone asked if I knew guitar chords to play along with “Spirit of Life,” the Carolyn McDade song that so many Unitarian Universalists are in love with. After ranting about how much I dislike that song because of its boring harmonic structure and banal melody, I finally admitted that I did not know of any good chords to play along with the song.

But that question kept bothering the back of my mind, and so tonight I went up to the church to borrow a piano and see if I could come up with pleasing chords. I looked at the piano arrangement in the current Unitarian Universalist hymnal, but it’s the kind of arrangement that begets a dirge-like tempo and breathy-voiced singing. So I looked just at the melody, which consists of three eight-measure sections, and I decided each eight-measure section could take the same basic chord progression: C Dm G7 Am C Dm G7 C (or I IIm V7 VIm I IIm V7 I) — a pleasantly folk-y but still boring harmonic structure.

But then I got to thinking: Maybe if you jazzed up those chords a little, you could create a little more movement in the song. Like this —
C9 Dm7 G7 CM7 Am7 Dm9 Gm9 FM7
C7 Dm7 G7 C7b9 Am7 Dm9 Gm9 FM7
C9 Dm7 G7 C7b9 A7 Dm7 Gm7 CM7
— played with a Charleston rhythm (1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &) [progression modified slightly 4/17].

Well, it’s better, but I haven’t got it quite right (although it does fall nicely on the guitar fingerboard). Maybe someone who is a much better musician than I can come up with a chord progression that makes this song sound good. Or maybe it’s a fatally flawed song that can will always sound dreary. Your comments and ideas, as always, are appreciated.

Towards a manifesto for emergent Unitarian Universalism

Mr. Crankypants’s post yesterday prompts me to try to put together a creative, positive statement of what emergent Unitarian Universalism might look like. Below you’ll find some brainstorming on the topic. Add your own ideas in the comments.

The context — Emergent Unitarian Universalism recognizes that the culture around us is changing rapidly. We know that our core theological message is a saving message for these postmodern times, and we have no interest in adapting our theological truth to fit these times. But everything else we do is up for grabs — worship styles, organizational structures, hymnody, management, openness to newcomers, everything — as long as it doesn’t compromise our core theological message.

The core theological message — Our core theological message is not a single statement, but a web of ideas. Historically, our core message grows from liberal theology of the Christian tradition. The insights of feminist, African American, and Two Thirds World liberation theologies have become central to us. Based on liberation theologies and other theologies of freedom, we value our differences of age, gender, race, national origin, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, and theology. We are bound together, not by a creed, but by covenants: We come together in the Spirit of Love to seek truth and goodness, to find spiritual transformation in our lives, to care for one another, and to promote practical goodness in the world. We know that all human beings (indeed, all sentient beings) share the same ultimate destiny, and we know that we have the free will to effect change in our lives and in the world.

We share our core theological message with Unitarians and Universalists and other religious liberals around the world, and we recognize (and value) the global diversity of our message.

Theses for change

Worship services need not take place only on Sunday morning. Ministers, other staff, and lay leaders who resist holding worship services at other times may be viewed as reactionary holdouts from the 1950s.

The emergent generations value mystery and tradition, so traditional church buildings and candlelight and ritual are assets.

The emergent generations often have never been a part of a church or religious institution before, so church leaders must assume a complete absence of knowledge about religion and religious practice at all times.

The surrounding culture is faceless and anonymous, and people are crying out for a sense of community. Thus our churches must stop being Continue reading